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Hurricane Iselle gaining strength as it nears Hawaii

HONOLULU — Hawaii residents prepared for what could be the first hurricane to hit the state in more than 20 years as weather officials said Wednesday that an approaching storm appears to have strengthened and will likely maintain its speed as it heads toward the islands.

Hurricane Iselle loomed about 600 miles east of Hilo, spinning at about 85 mph, forecasters said. It previously had been expected to weaken significantly before reaching land.

The storm is expected to lash the Big Island on Thursday with damaging winds, heavy rains and high surf. It’s now on track to remain hurricane-strength or weaken only to a strong tropical storm, said meteorologist Derek Wroe.

Hurricane Julio, meanwhile, swirled closely behind at about 75 mph. Forecasters expect it to slowly strengthen and pass north of the Big Island sometime this weekend.

Lixion Avlia, senior hurricane forecaster with National Hurricane Center in Miami, said the Hurricane Julio remained too far away to accurately predict its path.

Hawaii has been directly hit by hurricanes only three times since 1950, though the region has had 147 tropical cyclones over that time. The last time Hawaii was hit with a tropical storm or hurricane was in 1992, when Hurricane Iniki killed six people and destroyed more than 1,400 homes in Kauai, said Meteorologist Eric Lau.

“We’ve been lucky so far,” he said. “So we just need to really take this threat seriously and make sure everybody is prepared.”

The two Category 1 hurricanes, the lowest-level classification, have disrupted tourism, prompted flash flood warnings and led to school closures. Gov. Neil Abercrombie, meanwhile, signed an emergency proclamation allowing officials to tap into a disaster fund set aside by the state Legislature.

For travelers, Hawaiian Airlines waived reservation change fees and fare differences for passengers who needed to alter travel plans Thursday and Friday because of the storms. Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Ann Botticelli said hundreds of inquires poured in from customers seeking to change their flights.

Some travelers remained hopeful.

Boston resident Jonathan Yorke and his wife booked a Hawaii vacation with their two daughters last year. He has been watching the news to see how the storms could affect the two-week trip to Maui and the Big Island.

“We’re all optimists, so we’ll make the best of it,” Yorke said.

Washington state couple Tracy Black and Chris Kreifels made plans to get married in an outdoor ceremony on the Big Island Saturday. They spent Wednesday getting a marriage license, adjusting plans and communicating with worried guests on the mainland.

“We see the rain as a blessing,” Black said. “It will work out as it’s supposed to.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what financial impact the storms would have on the state’s tourism industry, a key economic driver.

Hawaii residents also have had to adjust. Many have been purchasing essentials such as water and other supplies. Stores have seen long lines this week as people brace themselves.

Some are voting early in primary elections that close Saturday. The elections include several marquee races, including congressional and gubernatorial races.

Also, education officials said public schools on the Big Island, Maui, Molokai and Lanai will be closed Thursday.

The storms are rare but not unexpected in years with a developing El Nino, a change in ocean temperature that affects weather around the world.

Ahead of this year’s hurricane season, weather officials warned that the wide swath of the Pacific Ocean that includes Hawaii could see four to seven tropical cyclones this year.

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